Small gift makes big impact on kids in this Special School District holiday performance | St. Louis Public Radio

Small gift makes big impact on kids in this Special School District holiday performance

Dec 7, 2017

Kendal Alexander has the role of Dasher the reindeer in the Ackerman School holiday performance.
Credit Provided | Anthony Volkman

For seven years, Ackerman School music teacher Anthony Volkman has spent his summers creating the school's annual holiday program on a budget likely to make The Grinch flinch.

“We had $400,” Volkman said. “We had basic costuming; we made sets out of cardboard and paper.”

Anthony Volkman has been teaching music at Ackerman School since 2009.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

But this year, the program will be more elaborate, thanks to a $3,000 grant from the Maritz marketing company. It's not a huge amount — enough for props for kids in wheelchairs, professional lighting and more microphones — but the impact on the kids in this K-8 Special School District building in Florissant is incalculable.

A quarter of the 160 kids at Ackerman are on the autism scale. Many have sensory issues.

“For some of these kiddos, just coming in the room is tough," Volkman said. "Being in front of people is tough, let alone acting, singing, dancing or pressing a communication button to speak.”

Teacher Anthony Volkman rehearses a song about snow with a dozen Ackerman School students.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

‘It’s a lot of confidence’

Four years ago, 12-year-old Clifford Swan wasn’t at all sure about his first pageant.

“I was so shy,” Clifford said. “I actually started to turn around and I asked my friend, ‘Give me the words, give me the words.’”

Clifford Swan, 12, plays an elf in this year's Ackerman School holiday songfest. He says he feels gets a lot of love from the audience.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

But Clifford managed his way through the part. Now with the approach of this year’s event, called “North Pole Follies,” he feels like a veteran.

“It’s a lot of confidence when you get to be around other people,” he said. “And I feel so, you know, happy … I get to impress people that’s out there.”

Fifth-grader Kyla Dotson also looks forward to this year’s production.

“Mr. V always has us pumped up about what we’re going to do,” Kyla said.

She’s especially pumped up about being one of several Mrs. Santa Clauses, who’ll channel Aretha Franklin in a rendition of “Respect.”

12-year-old Kyla Dotson looks forward to bringing out the feminist side of Mrs. Santa Claus.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

"It just shows that women need a little respect, not just cleaning up the house and cleaning up after men or after anybody,” she said.

For Kyla, this pageant is more than a holiday event; it’s a pathway to her future.

“I want to be a Broadway star,” Kyla said.

‘A ton of joy here’

The annual holiday pageant, to be held Dec. 15, reflects the year-round mission of Ackerman School, Principal Kelly Grigsby said.

Teachers help these Ackerman students to do the spins and turns of this reindeer routine.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

“We are a community that really supports them and takes them where they are. We don't ask them to be someone they're not,” Grigsby said. “I think there's a ton of joy here, a ton of excitement. And kids really feel a sense of belonging.”

Even kids who don’t feel comfortable on stage or in crowds still participate in the pageant. Volkman will record a small group singing a sleigh-ride song and show the video as part of the performance.

Ackerman kids who use wheelchairs are the stars of “Blitzen’s Boogie.” Until this year, the songs were mostly tried-and-true favorites like “Frosty the Snowman” but because of the grant, the school was able to pay royalty fees.

Andre Alexander is excited to see his daughter Kendal on stage.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

With the help of teachers, the kids in “Blitzen’s Boogie” spin around in their chairs, and in and out of formation.

Andre Alexander’s 11-year-old daughter Kendal is part of the rousing number.

“Kendal is nonverbal, but trust me, she communicates in her own way,” Alexander said. “The way Kendal lets you know she’s enjoying it, she’s clapping, she’s shaking her head; she’s got the biggest grin on her face.”

When the big day comes, Alexander will see his daughter onstage, in costume, for the first time.

“[It] makes me want to cry,” Alexander said. “Because you see other kids, [and] we have our son; we’ve seen him in numerous things. And she’s gotten to participate in some things but nothing like this. So, yeah, it’s really a big deal.”

Props for Ackerman's North Pole Follies include these horses made from pool noodles for a Holiday Hoedown number.
Credit Anthony Volkman

If you go:

‘North Pole Follies’ holiday program

When: 1:30-3 p.m., Friday, Dec. 15

Where: Ackerman School, 550 Derhake Road, Florissant

Admission: Free

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL